What is gluten and why can’t some people process it?
Gluten is a peptide fraction of protein that is primarily found in grains like wheat, barley and rye.1 Gluten is used in many processed foods because of its soft, chewy consistency and the superior way that it bakes up well in breads, muffins and other baked goods.
For some people, when gluten is consumed it yields an immune response as though they have eaten something toxic or pathogenic. This response can damage the villi of the small intestine, making it difficult to properly absorb nutrients.2 As time passes, if not properly treated this poor absorption will result in multiple nutrient deficiencies and malnourishment yielding countless ill-health consequences.
Why does gluten seem to be a bigger problem in recent years?
Gluten is an ancient grain and yet seems to be getting more press in the past decade or so. Why is it gaining so much polarizing popularity? Loads of gluten-based processed foods are still coming to market by the droves in response to the demand (that people want them), while on the other side of that coin, you have doctors like cardiologist Dr. William Davis, the author of, “Wheat Belly”, saying that wheat is “the most dangerous food that you can put on your plate.” The number of people with digestive challenges who are feeling better as they consume less and less gluten are on the rise. It seems that much more research needs to be done … however, there are some speculations.
Possible causes include:
- The wheat has changed. About 50 years ago, farmers started growing wheat in a way that would increase production. The modified crops aren’t the same today as they were before this began. This hypothesis has been suspected as a factor but is not confirmed. More research is needed here but given what we know about attempting to modify nature, it’s a likely culprit.
- Very few people are eating the whole grain. There is a big difference between whole wheat berries, which can be cooked in similar to rice, and a processed wheat product like a Pop-Tart or donut. If someone has a true celiac condition, this won’t hold true. But for many who seem to be sensitive to gluten, this would be interesting to put to the test.
- People are eating way more processed foods so that means that they are eating more wheat than they ever had in previous years. The wheat they are getting most is heavily processed which alters its nutrition. Due to the very nature of this processing, it’s likely that this wheat is bringing with it multiple other harmful additives such as sugars, dyes, and preservatives. It is possible that people are reacting to one or a combination of these things (fructans for example).3 The fact that there are so many ingredients that make up wheat-based processed foods can make it challenging to tell which issues are from the gluten itself and which may be at least in part due to something else that’s being ingested. We know that processed foods, as compared to whole foods, have less nutrition.4 When foods are processed and not as found in nature, they are less likely to have their natural synergistic cofactors and necessary components for nutrition to be found in the needed ratios.
What are the differences between Celiac disease, wheat allergies and non-celiac gluten sensitivity?
Celiac disease is characterized by a genetic susceptibility, exposure to gluten, an environmental “trigger” and an autoimmune response to gluten.1 In a person with celiac disease, the lining of the small intestine gets damaged. Celiac is diagnosed first by a blood test and then confirmed by a biopsy of the small intestine. The only known treatment is adherence to a strict gluten-free diet, including body care products that are applied to the skin, appliances used and carefulness to avoid cross-contamination.1
Wheat allergies are when a person has an immune response to wheat proteins. Common symptoms include watery eyes, a runny nose, hives and, in rare but serious cases, anaphylaxis.3
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is diagnosed in people who don’t have celiac disease or a wheat allergy but still have ill symptoms when they consume gluten and by symptoms improving when they eliminate wheat.3
How might having a gluten sensitivity, Celiac disease or wheat allergy affect a person’s lifestyle?
Celiac disease is the most difficult in terms of having to change your lifestyle. This is due to the fact that in this condition, it’s not just an issue of not eating gluten… You also should not touch it, breathe it or be around it, which is much more difficult especially from a social standpoint.
It is also important to note the social/emotional issues that may go along with these conditions. Constantly having gas or needing to stay close to the restroom are potentially embarrassing. Imagine simply hugging a friend or family member at a social gathering and it causing a reaction due to the gluten in their shampoo or lotion. This is extremely stressful to always need to be on such high alert.
Excess stress could be associated with always having to think through what you will tell people if you have to excuse yourself multiple times to go to the restroom, always needing to be the one to have to stop on a road trip and not being able to eat in certain restaurants, to name a few. Things like this can lead to stress, anxiety and even depression over time which all have many other associated detriments as their consequences.
It’s also worth noting that “gluten free” is big business and marketed for the purpose of making money, not necessarily your health. There’s often a misconception (due mostly to the combination of good marketing along with consumer ignorance) that gluten-free foods are healthy or healthier when in fact, they are more often loaded with sugar and chemicals and are highly processed… far from health promoting. This can also impact the frustration and stress levels of people who are seeking to avoid gluten.
However, for all of these conditions, there is hope! The good news is that if they move to a plant-based whole food diet, avoiding gluten is much simpler, inflammation goes down and overall health increases on such a diet.5 There are hundreds of fruits, vegetables, gluten-free grains, nuts, seeds and legumes that can be made in a variety of combinations for delicious, satisfying and anti-inflammatory nutrition.
If you are looking to do all you can to get healthy now and help your family do the same, start by eliminating all processed foods. Of course, at the same time, you will want to dramatically increase your vegetable, fruit, beans and lentil intake. Put it to the test for at least 10 days and notice the difference. I know you will love how you feel!
1. Mahan LK, Escott-Stump S. Krause’s Food and Nutrition Therapy.; 2008.
2. Celiac Disease Foundation. https://celiac.org/about-celiac-disease/future-therapies-for-celiac-disease/. Accessed May 26, 2020.
3. Chey W. What’s the Big Deal with Gluten?; 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEM2iDT-VAk&t=7s.
4. Miller Jones J, Guzman Garcia C, Braun H. Perspective: Whole and Refined Grains and Health—Evidence Supporting “Make Half Your Grains Whole.” Adv Nutr. 2020;11(3):492-506.
5. Slavin JL, Lloyd B. Health Benefits of Fruits and Vegetables. Adv Nutr. 2012. doi:10.3945/an.112.002154
Nothing said or implied in this post is intended to treat, cure, diagnose or prevent any disease. It does not take the place of a health care practitioner. It is for educational purposes only.